I spent my Veterans' Day 2009 collecting hostile fire pay. I happened to be the lone American with a bunch of Brits, Aussies, and French. Unbeknown to many Americans, they ("they" meaning "The Allies" from WWII) also celebrate the same holiday, but they know it as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day.
I was allowed to participate in their ceremony because, though I am American, nationality only mattered to the extent that some of the Frenchmen couldn't understand the English bits of the ceremony, and nobody else understood the French bits. We were all Veterans, and we were there to honor each other and our fallen brothers all the way back up through the ages. Technically, the holiday celebrates veterans from WWI and later, but since when do technicalities rule the roost? Likely that technicality is to avoid banged up feelings from the Brits, who I am sure would rather not celebrate American Veterans from 1784 - 1815.
It wasn't a particularly long ceremony, as far as military formations go. The time wasn't important, it was the idea that was significant: Men who are all part of a horrible little club, coming together because it is important to all of us to acknowledge this mutual bond. We needed no spoken words but got them anyway, in the form of a presiding chaplain and some very eloquent high-ranking officers.
I was the only American, and there was a brief debate on how to handle that. Each other contingent had their own group in the formation, and I would have looked awfully out of place as the formation commander for a squad of none. The gruff Colour Sergeant in command of the British group suggested we agree to disagree on the revolution and I lump in with their lot. There were no objections, so I found my place in formation. We were in big blocks by nationality, each block facing the flagpole bearing that nation's standard. At the base of each flagpole was a flag detail, ready to raise the flags to full mast at the appropriate time. The Stars and Stripes was thankfully right next to the Union Jack, so I didn't look like a goofy motherfucker with a crooked head trying to salute the wrong flag, even if that's exactly what I was.
We pinned our hearts to those flags, and let little pieces slip out on our breath like shards of glass. We pondered our predecessors and we pondered ourselves. There was a moment of silence during which I was struck with a question:
What do I do with this?
Will I carry this moment around with me for the rest of my life, knowing that only a very few would truly know it as I did? Did every generation of veterans carry this burden of shared experience, each wondering anew what to do with it? How many times would I roll these rocks up the hill so I could chase them down?
There are a few times in each life where one in confronted with an enormity. Sometimes this enormity falls neatly into a place that previously had only been filled academically, like knowing the word "love" and then feeling it, and assigning the experience to the name. Or that moment of sudden understanding the link between algebra and calculus, or a sudden insight into human nature. These are great revelations and should be treasured.
Sometimes, this enormity falls into a place where there is no space for it, and it can't be assigned or categorized or assimilated. You're left feeling full and restless, but hungry for answers and explanations. Incommunicable and inconsolable. Years and experience erode only the sharpest edges, but never enough to forget. These enormities should be equally treasured, but they won't help one grasp the depth of a sonnet, or see the beauty in an equation, or grasp the intricacies of political intrigue. They are a thing of brooding introspection. They lay you open to yourself in ways that drugs or interrogators or therapists cannot. They change the way you resonate, and they change who you are.
And while I moved through the motions as they were called out by the Colour Sergeant, conscious of how strange my American drill movements looked among the British unit that adopted me, I realized suddenly that even that didn't matter. We stood differently, we moved differently, we saluted differently, but it all meant the same thing:
Brothers, I'm here.
I will remember.